Tevye, Jewish patriarch in Fiddler on the Roof…
It’s a very busy, tedious, hard-scratch life in Anatevka. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word! Tradition!
Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God.
You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know.
But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as, As… As a fiddler on the roof!
As his family responds to the various circumstances of life, they each tear apart Tevye’s sacred traditions bit by bit. His traditions were not transcendent; their foundation was uncertain.
What can we learn from this movie?
Most Baptists recognize that a major part of the errors embraced by Roman Catholicism are enshrined in extra-biblical traditions that are held up as church dogma. While it’s easy to see this in the Roman religion, do we carefully examine our own walk – as individuals and churches – to see if we are guilty as well? I am quite sure we all know the teaching of Scripture on this topic, as Christ quoted Isaiah in saying to the Jews, in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” Are we Baptist excluded from this rebuke? My personal experience indicates otherwise. I pray these things are not true of you!
When I was first called as a deacon, it took 6 months of discussion to agree that tithing was not a requirement of that office. I was thankful the other deacons were willing to study this topic rather than merely throw me out. When I was in a seeker sensitive church I was ridiculed because I questioned this teaching, not seeing evangelism as inviting lost people to church, as I studied the Bible.
Baptists have traditions and, like Tevye, we often do not know or care where they came from.
While in a 1689 LBC church, I saw how traditions were to be supported without question, and I was looked down upon for not taking these positions on blind faith. The Decalogue is God’s moral law – why would anyone ask where that is taught in Scripture? The “Christian Sabbath” is binding on all people – why would anyone ask where in the Bible this is found?
In the two years since moving to SE Oklahoma, I’ve been exposed to several local Baptist churches and been intrigued by the extra-biblical traditions they embrace. Just as the other groups of Baptists, they are tenacious in the blind faith they have in their sacred traditions. It’s as if, as one church-man said about his “altar call” – “It’s the most important part of the worship service!” And it’s nowhere found in God’s Holy Word. What’s more, there is no altar in the New Covenant church other than the Lord Jesus Himself. Similar attachments are tied to children’s church (unsaved people have their own worship service!) and children parading through the gathered saints, begging for money to put in an offering plate, being applauded by the adults. I couldn’t help but think of Matthew 6:1-4:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
In this passage we see that the praise of men is the only reward hypocrites have for their giving; it is not accepted by God as are the gifts from the saints on behalf of the saints (Philippians 4:14-18). The parading children played the part of the hypocrites in the passage cited above, with the adults playing the part of the “others” who praised the hypocrites. As with other acts of worship, giving as worship cannot be performed by those who are not clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Proverbs 21:27) and the money earned by sin should not be offered to God (Deuteronomy 23:18).
Celebration of birthdays and wedding anniversaries of all present in a worship service are the norm. Mothers and fathers are honored on those days so identified by the greeting card industry. Veterans and firemen, et al. are honored on Memorial Day as if these men are why we gather. I’ve seen the inside of a Baptist church building virtually clothed in American flags on July 4th weekend.
All of these practices displace the worship of God with lesser things, making man and his domain the focus of at least part of the time God’s people gather to supposedly worship Him.
The standard Baptist membership covenant from the 19th century requires members “abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage.” The Bible forbids getting drunk and warns about “strong wine” but does not prohibit the sale or use of alcohol for any but a few, such as Nazarites (Numbers 6:1-7). At the end of the time of his vow, the Nazarite was permitted to drink wine (Numbers 6:13-20).
Baptists call the church building “the house of God,” forgetting one lesson from John 4 – that in the New Covenant there are no sacred spaces and that the Bible clearly declares we are the house of God! The church building is not a sanctuary, it is, as an Anglican from New Zealand put it, a rain shelter. Our sanctuary is in heaven where our altar is – Christ Jesus is our all in all!
Baptist churches have sole “pastors,” “senior pastors,” “administrative pastors,” “executive pastors,” “worship pastors,” and the list goes on. All the while the Bible shows a plurality and equality of elders (“Pastor” not being a title found anywhere in Scripture). Having two or more men who preach and teach provides several benefits, in addition to aligning with the examples and teachings from Scripture (Acts 11:27-30; 14:21-23; 20:7; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; et al.). Two or more men can sharpen one another and hold each other accountable, while the church sees the true Shepherd more clearly when they see Him work through more than one man. The church will see strengths and weaknesses in each man and those men will have the opportunity to be examples of how to serve in unity without letting egos derail the ministry. As they seek to identify others and train them for this service, more men will have opportunity to serve the saints in myriad ways. This is part of life in the body of Christ that is vital and often ignored or undervalued.
Each of these groups, and I pray, none of us, are what I call “white space theologians,” people who build their doctrine and practice on the white spaces in the Bible rather than the words God put there.
Many of these local churches have no statement of faith declaring to their members and interested saints what they believe; they accumulate their traditions along the way and new members find out by experience what’s important. This can be like walking through an unmarked minefield, and just as deadly.
We who are not of Rome tend to cling to our traditions as tightly as do the Roman Catholics. How can we defend this while rightly decrying their practice? Oh how I wish that Baptists would see the danger of our own traditions that are not based on Scripture and cry out for repentance! We were, once upon a time, called “people of the Book” for our tenacious grip on the Word of God. That name cannot, in good conscience, be applied to Baptists at large.
We protest, “Our traditions are not as bad as following Baal!” Yet search the Scriptures and see if you find any commendation for drifting away from God’s instruction in favor of any teaching of man.
My prayer is that each of us here would recognize the need we have to examine ourselves and our traditions – to see if there be any wicked ways therein. If we worship God according to our personal preferences rather than asking how does Scripture advise us to do so, we are in danger of drifting towards the black hole of Charles Finney.
D’Aubigne, in his History of the Reformation, observed, “Nothing terrifies the defenders of human traditions so much as the word of God.” He further recorded a scene in which a Cambridge professor named Bilney in the 16th century was tormented about his salvation and took the advice of Roman Catholic priests – abasing himself in myriad ways to make himself pleasing to God. He grew weak and wondered if the priests were more interested in themselves than in his salvation. He found a copy of the newly available Greek New Testament; he took it up and read 1 Tim 1:15 – The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. He realized that Christ saves sinners and he was a great sinner who needed salvation. With joy in his soul he rose up from the Book and declared that Christ had cleansed and redeemed him, eliminating all doubt and despair. “I see it all,” said Bilney; “my vigils, my fasts, my pilgrimages, my purchase of masses and indulgences were destroying instead of saving me. All these efforts were, as St. Augustine says, a hasty running out of the right way.”
This is what traditions do, if they are not of God and are pressed down on people as if they are required in order to please Him or build up His people. It’s as Paul said, the letter kills but the Spirit gives life! Unhealthy traditions are a burden that many know not they carry; but they weigh down on them more and more until they lose sight of Christ all together, so consumed in seeing to it their sacred traditions are upheld.
God help us so this may NOT be said of us! Let us remember our Lord’s words: Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jer 9:24 & 25)